Homestead - South Dade

How an area destroyed by Hurricane Andrew 25 years ago underwent a radical change

Along Florida's Turnpike in South Miami-Dade, where potato farms and fields of row crops stretched all the way to the visible horizon at the time when Hurricane Andrew struck, it’s virtually all rows of close-packed houses and townhomes today. Now the unavoidable noise walls are going up to forever block vistas once among the most beguiling in South Florida.

Along South Dixie Highway, where scraggly lots, small farm fields and vegetable- and fruit-packing houses once mixed it up with used-car lots and budget motels, the landscape is a cornucopia of strip malls, Publix and Wal-Mart stores and fast-food chain restaurants.

And everywhere there is traffic, backed up one way in the morning, when three-quarters of all employed adults in South Miami-Dade head north to downtown Miami, Coral Gables or even Doral to work, and the other way when they drive back home in the evening.

This is South Miami-Dade today, 25 years after Andrew brought to it destruction on a scale that, a generation later, seems hard to comprehend. Not even the most observant of residents could today discern traces of a storm that in the early morning hours of Aug. 24, 1992, wrecked thousands of structures, many of them cheaply and poorly built, upended thousands of lives and gave rise to a determined mantra that defined the region for years after: We will rebuild.

Rebuild they did, and more, recasting a sleepily rural and semi-rural expanse of territory, historically oriented around a series of often-struggling agricultural communities, into an extension of sprawling Miami-Dade suburbia. From Homestead and Florida City to Cutler Bay, South Miami-Dade is today a place drastically transformed, physically and demographically, since Andrew sent much of its mostly white middle-class population packing, mostly for good.

Nowhere is the contrast clearer than on the site of the former Naranja Lakes, Andrew’s ground zero. The storm’s center plowed through the modest condo community of 3,000 people, killing three. Twelve years after the association was dissolved and the complex demolished, it became Mandarin Lakes, a neighborhood of leafy, tree-shaded streets and homes with front porches that’s reminiscent of small-town Florida, but one occupied mostly by black and Hispanic families.

Now South Miami-Dade sits on the spur of a further turning point as Miami-Dade’s center of population gravity nudges ever south and, post-recession, developers resume their search for the last remaining buildable green fields in the county to turn into houses and shopping strips.

“We’ve rebuilt,” said Miami-Dade Commissioner Dennis Moss, who was first elected in 1993, the year after Andrew, and has dedicated much of his time in office to pushing the region’s redevelopment. “We went in and tore down and built anew. We’ve come back from Hurricane Andrew, and we’re better off in many places than we were prior to the hurricane.”

South Miami-Dade’s population, just over 300,000 in 1990, has since grown to nearly 528,000, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures compiled by Florida International University’s Metropolitan Center. The region has added 75,000 units of housing since 1990, bringing its total to more than 190,000.

That influx has been racially and ethnically diverse, and economically working and middle-class. Deep South Miami-Dade is one of the last places in the county where working families can afford to purchase a house or townhome, though that’s changing, too. New homes being built by mass homebuilders like Lennar and D.R. Horton sell for upward of $300,000. The median price for an existing single-family is $245,000 in Homestead and $257,000 in Naranja, an increase of 16.7 percent and 36 percent, respectively, according to the Miami Association of Realtors, over last year.

Since Andrew, South Miami-Dade has strengthened and improved infrastructure, built better housing under significantly beefed-up post Andrew building codes and enforcement, and drawn some big civic, recreational and commercial amenities. Those include an expanded and improved ZooMiami and a new Homestead Hospital, part of the Baptist Health system. New charter schools have sprung up along with new residential developments.

The sleek South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center in Cutler Bay, run by the county’s cultural affairs department, hosts a full slate of top-notch performers. Florida City and, most recently, Homestead, now boast architecturally distinctive city halls. Miami Dade College’s Homestead campus enrolls 11,000 students. A NASCAR racetrack in Homestead draws tens of thousands of fans when it hosts the stock-car series finale every year. New hotels serve the area’s renascent tourism business, including a hip Home2 Suites by Hilton off Krome Avenue in Florida City. There’s even a huge Mercedes-Benz dealership in Cutler Bay.

But the pace of improvement has been uneven and unequal.

Much of South Miami-Dade, dependent on low-paying agricultural work, had been troubled by poverty, substandard housing and government neglect long before Andrew. Today, extensive pockets of deep poverty and crime remain in Florida City and Homestead and the communities of Goulds, West Perrine and Naranja along U.S. 1, a stretch at one point dubbed the Dead Zone for its lack of economic life.

Redevelopment has yet to reach much of that corridor, in part because the area remains too poor to attract private investment, Moss acknowledges. So while the county built affordable, subsidized housing to replace homes and apartments destroyed by Andrew, there has until recently been scant private development to lift those communities, he and others say.

“That traditionally has been a tough area,” said Steve Shiver, a lifelong Homestead resident who was the town’s mayor and served as Miami-Dade County manager after Andrew.

That means that South Miami-Dade has some startling income disparities. Affluent suburbs at its north end that incorporated after Andrew, like Pinecrest and Palmetto Bay, boast some of the highest median household incomes in Miami-Dade, at $128,966 and $106,324, respectively. Florida City ($25,840), Naranja ($29,149) and Goulds ($29,333) have some of the lowest, said FIU Metropolitan Center associate director Ned Murray.

The undifferentiated sprawl that has characterized South Miami-Dade’s redevelopment has meanwhile left much of the region with a shortage of geographic or civic focal points and no strongly defined identity.

To be sure, the rural economy that once sustained the area in the days when it was America’s winter vegetable basket still survives in broad swaths, especially in and around Florida City and the older sections of Homestead west of U.S. 1, and in the tens of thousands of acres of the Redland, a protected agricultural zone between the urbanized county and the Everglades National Park dike. But the ag industry has been significantly diminished by NAFTA and various invasive pests.

That rural character has almost entirely disappeared inside the Urban Development Boundary, the line running along both the east and west flanks of the South Dixie-Florida Turnpike corridor that keeps urban development out of farmland and critical watershed areas. Gone are the once-ubiquitous strawberry u-pick farms and groves of mango and avocado that once filled the zone.

“Every time I go down there I see more and more development and less and less farmland,” said Miami historian Paul George, author of a book about South Miami-Dade called “A Journey Through Time.” “It’s amazing.

“South Dade is caught between a diminishing farming sector and a rising housing sector. It’s a place that is just evolving now.”

Generally defined as the chunk of Miami-Dade south of Kendall Drive, South Miami-Dade stretches 25 linear miles from Downtown Dadeland to Florida City, the county’s southernmost municipality. The worst damage from Andrew happened around Florida City and neighboring Homestead, both nearly wiped out by the storm, and the unincorporated stretch north of that along the South Dixie corridor. That bit goes from Princeton and Naranja — through which the center of the potent hurricane plowed — to what was then known as Cutler Ridge, today the municipality of Cutler Bay. Subdivisions in suburban West Kendall also suffered extensive damage.

The statistics are shocking: Andrew caused a then-record $26.5 billion in damage. Just in Homestead, then a town of 26,000, more than 7,500 people were left homeless and more than 85 percent of the housing was damaged. The town’s principal shopping mall, on U.S. 1 at Campbell Drive, sustained so much damage it had to be torn down.

“There was nothing left but city hall, the power plant and the hospital,” recalled Alex Muxo, the town manager when Andrew hit. “Everything else was gone.”

A linchpin of the South Miami-Dade economy, Homestead Air Force Base, was essentially leveled and closed (though it would later reopen, on a smaller scale, as an air reserve base), taking 7,500 jobs with it overnight. With homes, shops, infrastructure and the economy in a shambles, and facing years of difficult reconstruction, much of the local and mostly white middle class left and never came back, including thousands of retirees.

Aided by insurance payments, residents of West Kendall and the post-World War II suburbs south of Kendall Drive rebuilt in relatively short order. But recovery lagged for years deeper into South Dade, as the area was then called, even as federal aid poured in. Those who remained were in large part those who lacked the means to move. Even those who owned homes lacked insurance or had scant equity because the houses were substandard and worth little — in some cases less than the value of a homestead exemption, noted Shiver, the former Homestead mayor.

Andrew forced the issue, requiring extensive demolitions and, where feasible, renovations. To this day, both Homestead and Florida City are dotted with vacant lots.

“I saw a place that was really hurting,” said George, the historian, who was researching his South Dade book in the years immediately after Andrew. “The scars were still there. For seven or eight years after Andrew, it was forlorn. Like it was jinxed.”

Homestead built some new affordable housing on its old west side to replace what was lost. But as its revenue and fiscal fortunes plummeted, officials hit on a strategy of rezoning and annexing land on the east side of South Dixie Highway for suburban residential development.

The resulting boom was so dramatic that Homestead was at one point among the fastest-growing municipalities in the country. The strategy paid off in many ways: The population shot up to 66,500 today, a 148 percent increase, and its median household income has risen to $40,959, according to FIU figures. That income level is still under the Miami-Dade median of $43,786, but a far sight better than Homestead’s median of $21,000 before Andrew.

But there was a significant downside as well.

In the Great Recession, Homestead had one of the highest foreclosure rates in Florida. Homes were abandoned or never occupied and values plunged, a calamity from which the city has only recently begun to recover. Much of the vacant housing has been absorbed, but much of it has turned into rentals. The total of assessed property values in Homestead plunged 54 percent from 2010 to 2013, according to city figures.

The city’s picturesque, historic downtown, meanwhile, was largely neglected and went into sharp economic decline. Homestead officials have launched a promising revitalization strategy that’s bringing in a complex combining movie theaters, a bowling alley, dining and retail with a parking garage and a transit hub linked to the adjacent county busway, another post-Andrew improvement.

Next door, Florida City Mayor Otis Wallace pursued big commercial development along U.S. 1. He and Moss pushed for installation of water and sewer systems along the highway for the first time, removing a major impediment to development. The town also built some new housing, but its population has continued to lag economically. Florida City didn’t have land to expand housing like Homestead did, though it’s now pursuing an aggressive annexation strategy to do so.

By forcing renovations and improvements, Andrew not only made a permanent mark on South Miami-Dade, Moss and others said, but has in the end left it in a far stronger position that it would otherwise have been in.

“That is the silver lining, if any, though I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” Shiver said. “But South Dade is more robust. It’s not a fragile economy anymore.”

That doesn’t mean its future prosperity is secure by any means, though.

Largely untrammeled growth, coupled with inadequate public transit, has saddled South Miami-Dade with severe traffic issues that some believe put its viability at risk. It takes as long as 90 minutes to traverse the busway, which runs from Florida City to Metrorail’s Dadeland South station, making the transit option impractical to use for many residents.

The mobility problem is compounded by the fact that South Miami-Dade has few big private employment centers between Homestead Hospital and Assurant, the national insurance company headquartered in Cutler Bay.

That wasn’t the way things were supposed to work out.

After Andrew, Miami-Dade County planners convened public workshops and instituted new zoning rules to create compact, mixed-use urban centers along South Dixie Highway that would be linked to the busway and a promised future expansion of Metrorail to Florida City. The idea was to foster residential, commercial and office development in close proximity and develop population clusters dense enough to support transit service, while allowing residents to dispense with cars for commuting and errands.

Instead, Metrorail expansion never happened, and developers turned to easier-to-develop farmland inside the UDB and built at low densities that require auto use.

To planners like Subrata Basu, a retired county planning official who helped develop the urban-hub plan, it’s been a lost opportunity to direct the growth pattern in South Miami-Dade in a sensible way.

“Everything has grown helter-skelter,” Basu said. “After Andrew, we missed that opportunity to refocus our energies, in spite of many efforts. There wasn’t political willingness. There really has to be a better, more comprehensive look at things.”

Growing transportation woes and renewed development pressure might already be forcing that debate. Elected officials, including Moss and mayors in all five South Miami-Dade municipalities, are clamoring for conversion of the busway to rail transit, even as Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez appears to have thrown his support instead behind a system of fast buses that operate in many ways like trains. Some residents are demanding curbs on growth.

Officials and planners say transit-oriented development – which Miami-Dade is already instituting at Metrorail stations along U.S. 1 — represents the only real option for South Miami-Dade.

Just about everyone expects significant growth still to come: Some planners project South Miami-Dade will see as much as 40 percent population increase by 2040. To channel development into the urban corridor, though, means the county must hold fast against expected pressure from developers and property owners to expand the UDB, they say.

“I think the county has displayed a tremendous amount of foresight in planning and development in South Dade,” said Pinecrest Mayor Joe Corradino, who is also name partner of an architecture and planning firm that just completed a study of traffic along U.S. 1. “They were insightful enough to put in a development boundary. They also put in the busway. That’s eventually going to be a higher level of rapid transit.

“I don’t think saying no to growth is reasonable. It is what drives our South Florida economy. But I see the conflict being whether we accommodate that growth by expanding the UDB and continuing with low-density development, or accommodating that growth inside the develop boundary. I think that’s the battle we will see in the coming years.”

Moss wants to see “intense development” along the busway route much like Downtown Dadeland, though at a lower scale more compatible with the immediate surroundings. The county has already put out a bid for high-rise transit-oriented development, including a workforce housing component, on Quail Roost Drive, he noted.

“I want that to become a trend all along the transitway,” he said. “When you have people in that density, it supports transit. It’s also attractive to office development. What I want are little Downtown Dadelands all along the transitway.”

What’s certain, residents say, is that the days of South Miami-Dade as a semi-rural outpost are gone for good, and it won’t ever go back to the way it was before Hurricane Andrew.

“It’s the last frontier,” Shiver said. “That’s the natural progression of the county. People are moving down here. Development is going to happen. Farmland is not going to stay farmland. Some of us complain about the density and the traffic.

“But whether we locals like it or not, it’s gonna grow.”

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